What Happened To Tom Tiger? The Battle for a Seminole Chief’s Remains
The Seminole Indians have a long and storied past with the settlers of Florida. Following the Third Seminole War (1855-58), the few hundred remaining Native Americans settled deep within the Everglades where they could live without conflict. Relations gradually improved between the two groups, and by the 1890s, white residents were offering opportunities for trade and state assistance to their Seminole neighbors. Friendship between Indians and settlers spurred hope for a new era of cooperation. Unfortunately, the 1907 grave robbery of a beloved Seminole Chief, Captain Tom Tiger, threatened the burgeoning relationship. The crisis that followed highlights the complicated relationship between the Florida tribes and their non-Indian neighbors. While the conflict proved whites would work to preserve Indigenous rights and values, it also revealed the continued suspicion, ignorance, and mistreatment of the Seminole peoples.
In Tom Tiger’s obituaries, the chief’s non-Indian friends remember him as a stately, clever and good-natured leader, stressing his extraordinary stature and good looks. At over six feet and 200 pounds, he towered over his native counterparts. In stories of his adventures, newspapers praise his good-humor and wit, with one going so far as to declare him “the handsomest Indian in Florida” (Morning News, 1896). Shortly before his death, Tom Tiger made headlines when he accused a white man of stealing his horse. The Society of Friends of the Florida Indians aided Tiger in his legal case, even convincing government officials to provide the natives with free transportation to Titusville to act as prosecuting witnesses. Though the judge acquitted the man based on lack of evidence, Tom Tiger made history as the first Seminole to testify in court on his own behalf (Florida Agriculturalist, 1899). Unfortunately, it would not be the last time the Seminoles would fight a legal battle against white settlers.
In mid-January of 1907, a Pennsylvanian named J.L. Flournoy came to the Everglades claiming to be writing a history of Florida Indians. When he arrived at the settlements of Big Mound City and Hungryland, the traveler expressed particular interest in the grave of Captain Tom Tiger, who had died not too long after his famous court case in 1899. Tiger had been carving a canoe near his home on Lake Okeechobee when a bolt of lightning struck and killed him. When the Seminoles found the body, axe still gripped in hand, they fashioned the unfinished canoe into a makeshift mausoleum. After hearing this tale, Flournoy secretly hired a white trader to take him deep into the swamp to search for the tomb. Upon finding the burial site, Flournoy desecrated the grave, stuffing the chief’s bones and personal relics into his hunting coat. He discreetly shipped the stolen remains north, confiding to one of his companions that he intended to bring the artifacts to the Smithsonian Institute.
After receiving word of the grave-robbery, native leader Billie Smith traveled to the settlement of Tantie (now a ghost town) to denounce the abduction of his friend’s skeleton. Despite town officials’ attempts to pacify Smith with a monetary settlement, he threatened war on the white settlers if the remains were not returned in “one moon.” In response, county commissioners convened in Fort Pierce and promised to do everything in their power to retrieve the stolen corpse and bring the thief to justice (St. Lucie County Tribune, March 1907). The Florida Legislature even introduced a bill to allot $300 for the safe return of Tom Tiger’s skeleton (Ocala Evening Star, 9 April 1907). Flournoy, meanwhile, had fled to the North to escape the wrath of the Seminoles. He likely was not expecting the Florida locals to share the Native’s outrage over the grave robbery; but the desecration was not only an affront to morals; it endangered the relatively steady peace in the region. The Pensacola Journal wrote: “For the protection of the white man and for humanity sake, so far as the Indian is concerned, outrages of the kind mentioned should not be permitted. They are revolting to every sense of decency and right” (Pensacola Journal, March 1907).
J.M. Wilson, Jr., the Secretary of the Society of Friends of the Seminole Indians worked tirelessly on behalf of his indigenous neighbors. He personally investigated the claim that Flournoy was working under the direction of the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian wrote to Wilson claiming Flournoy had sent them a letter in March of 1907, proposing the sale of various Indian relics and the skeleton of an Okeechobee chief. The Smithsonian Official explained they were unaware the collector had illegally procured the relics; and were equally surprised that the bones actually belonged to the Seminole (not Okeechobee) Chief whose desecrated grave was making national headlines. The Institution promised their full cooperation with the investigation should Flournoy or his shipment of artifacts surface (St. Lucie County Tribune, April 1907). Wilson soon received his own letter from Flournoy denying any intention of wrongdoing. The northerner claimed he legally purchased a collection of Indian relics for $17 dollars during his Everglades expedition. Making no mention of the missing Chief, Flournoy offered to discuss the issue with Wilson upon his next trip to the region (St. Lucie County Tribune, April 1907).
The lethargic pace of the investigations heightened tensions between the Seminoles and nearby settlements. With three months having passed since Billie Smith demanded the return of Tom Tiger’s body, townsfolk worried the Indians might soon fulfill their threats of violence. On April 17 1907, papers across the Southeast published the first of several frightful reports of the Indians’ assault on a rural Florida village along Fish-Eating Creek. Over the next few days, further details of the raid followed with salacious headlines like “Redskins on War Path Attacked the Whites” (Hartford Herald, 1907) and “Seminoles on the Shoot” (Ocala Evening Star, 18 April 1907). News of the attack even reached Puerto Rico, with the newspaper, La Correspondencia publishing a story titled “Los Indios Seminolas han cumplido su amenaza” (“The Seminole Indians have made good on their threat”)(La Correspondencia, 1907). Three days after the initial reports, The Pensacola Journal published a full description of the terrifying scene:
“Monday night, the red braves, 400 of them, in war paint and with the methods which characterized their forefathers in the days when the tribes were the lords of the woods, swamps, and morasses, which are now known as the Everglades, suddenly appeared in the clearing along Fish-Eating Creek and with rifles instead of bow and tomahawk, proceeded to take that silent revenge which their savage forefathers cherished as their inherent right and duty.”
The four-hundred Indians surrounded the small village, firing into every home before escaping back into the protection of the Everglades. After getting their families to safety, the men of the town, along with the Sheriff of De Soto County, formed a posse to track the assailants (The Pensacola Journal, April 1907). Tragedy struck the vigilante band a few days later when The Ocala Evening Star reported a group of Seminoles had ambushed the expedition and murdered the Sherriff. The paper’s attempts to communicate with Arcadia to confirm the bloodshed were unsuccessful (Ocala Evening Star, 19 April 1907).
By April 20, The Ocala Evening Star had finally received an update on the state of the attacks in De Soto County. “Second War with the Seminoles” warned the author, “Dreadful Stories of Death and Destruction Come from the Everglades.” The paper transcribed an hour-by-hour summary from an eyewitness at Fish-Eating Creek. The informant described a horrific scene of 4,000 Seminoles in war paint, armed with tomahawks, rifles, revolvers, clubs, and even bombs. As he hid in a nearby tree, the reporter observed Seminoles dragging massacred townsfolk into an enormous bonfire as they danced and celebrated their victory. The eyewitness devotes several more paragraphs describing the atrocity and calling for state leadership to take action against the Natives. The most shocking report comes in the final paragraph, subtitled: “Above is All Jest; Here are the Facts,” revealing the satirical update and the initial reports were a farce. After the very-much-alive Sheriff returned to town, he denied any signs of an imminent uprising. Upon locating the Seminole settlement, the surprised Indians confirmed, “All big lie of white man. Indian no fight; can’t fight white man. Indian no got no money. Can’t fight nohow” (Ocala Evening Star, 20 April 1907).
While war was no longer an imminent threat, the issue of Tom Tiger’s disappearance remained. Whether pressured by the previous week’s bloody headlines or the continued anger of city officials, Flournoy conceded to returning the stolen remains (Ocala Evening Star, May 1907). The missing bones arrived around early June and the precious cargo returned to its rightful place with the Seminoles. While various local papers questioned the authenticity of the bones, the Indians seem to consider the matter concluded and asked no further questions (The Pensacola Journal, June 1907) With Tommy Tiger’s bones finally at rest, peaceful relations resumed between the Seminoles and the White Floridians.
Despite the appearance of a happy ending, the long-term outcomes were—in fact—bleak. Outside of the court of public opinion, Flournoy faced no repercussions for his crime. While the incident represented the continued abuse of native peoples, many residents remained ignorant of their part in the dark legacy of colonialism. Since Floridians had been successful in retrieving the body of Tom Tiger, Senator A.M. Taylor had an ironic proposal for the state’s next project: secure the bones of Ponce de Leon from their tomb in Puerto Rico to be buried in St. Augustine. The move would only be fitting, he claimed, to honor “the grand old knight who was the first to plant the white man’s banner of civilization on the Western Continent” (The Pensacola Journal, June 1907). After grave-robbing, legal battles, and a possible race war, Florida’s main takeaway from the Tom Tiger affair was a precedent for securing the body of the Conquistador who first brought disease and warfare to the Seminole 400 years prior.
“Indians on War Path Against Whites: Four Hundred Braves Attack Settlements on Fish-Eating Creek” The Pensacola Journal. (Pensacola, Fla.), 20 April 1907. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87062268/1907-04-20/ed-1/seq-3/>
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“Redskins on War Path; Attacked the Whites: Taking Revenge for the Disturbance of Their Old Chief’s Bones” The Hartford herald. (Hartford, Ky.), 24 April 1907. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84037890/1907-04-24/ed-1/seq-3/>
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